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Passion drives Allen-Gordon in his quest to help the region's young people be the best they can be, now and in the future

Dan Allen-Gordon was once introduced at Rotary as a "bad boy turned good".

As a child, he went to Fairfield Primary, a Decile 1 school in Hamilton, and was involved in fights.

When he was 9, he was bashed in the head, but rejects any suggestion he went looking for trouble.

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"I actually don't think I was that bad but I guess in a tough community you have to defend yourself," he said.

Now 56 and the regional manager of the Foundation for Youth Development Bay of Plenty, Dan dedicates his life to preventing violence and bullying in schools, and to helping youth.

A finalist in the Bay of Plenty Times Person of the Year last year, he works between 70 and 80 hours a week co-ordinating the charitable foundation's life skills programmes in Bay schools.

"I don't see it as work," he said.

"It's a passion. I love seeing young people being successful."

In 2005, Dan introduced the region to Kiwi Can, a programme now taught to 2400 kids in 10 Western Bay schools.

Despite having a family of his own, he also manages to keep in contact with each of the 84 students who have done Project K, a 14-month course involving wilderness adventure, a community challenge and individual mentoring for selected Year 10 students at Otumoetai and Mount colleges.

In September, Dan is organising Drop Your Boss, a fundraising event to help the foundation find the $150 per child it needs for Kiwi Can and the $7000 per pupil for Project K.

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He will join 20 community and business leaders (including Bay of Plenty Times magazines editor Annemarie Quill) in abseiling off Tauranga's IRD building.

When we meet this week, Dan says funding is a constant battle and the need for the foundation's programmes is great.

"There are kids falling through the gaps because there are not enough resources to go around."

It's a passion. I love seeing young people being successful.

He is particularly keen to get Stars, which teaches Year 12 and 13 students to mentor pupils in their first year of high school, to the Bay.

"It has been run in Tokoroa High for a few years and the principal there, last year said, that a crisis before Stars was the Bloods and the Crips having a brawl on the bottom field of the school, and now a crisis is two girls yelling at each other in the playground."

He would also like to introduce the foundation's Career Navigator and MYND, a programme for young offenders and their siblings.

When we meet, it is pouring with rain and Dan is enjoying a hot chocolate at a Cameron Rd cafe.

Dan Allen-Gordon. Photo/George Novak
Dan Allen-Gordon. Photo/George Novak

He has had a busy morning racing between his office and schools but dressed in black jacket and scarf, he oozes calm, even when getting a flurry of texts from his office manager.

He speaks about how his job sees him at meetings most nights of the week and, when probed on his background, admits his early years led him on his path today.

"When I was very young, I made a conscious decision about how I wanted to be as a person and a parent, and that was different to what I'd experienced."

Dan's parents split when he was 3, and for the next nine years, he was shuttled back and forth between homes.

Born to Pakeha parents but with a Maori grandmother, he was whangai (adopted) by a Maori family when he was 12 and, although he enjoyed a settled teenage life, he continued to witness people in his community make bad choices. "Some are not around now," he said.

These days, he sports a Rotary badge and is director of the Tauranga Sunrise Club's New Generations youth programme, as well as a referee of junior rugby.

A former representative player in Australia in his late teens and early 20s, he is a massive fan of the game.

"It's like an 80-minute adrenaline rush. It's a lot of fun. It gets in your blood."

His 15-year-old son, Sam, has played in the national sevens team for his age group the past two years and Dan said he is immensely proud of both his kids. His daughter, Larissa, 24, has a double major in marketing and communications, and recently joined Rotary too.

"She's brought the average age of Tauranga Sunrise right down," jokes Dan.

There are kids falling through the gaps because there are not enough resources to go around.

His wife, Josie, is "a very clever lady" and is having a career change from registered nurse. After finishing a business diploma, she is now studying horticulture, while Dan completed a national diploma in youth work last year.

He also has management qualifications, and asked if he did well in school, he says, "I could've done, but didn't stay long enough."

He left at 14 - "I don't really tell the kids that story because I want them to stay in school" - but he has no regrets. "You can't regret what you've done. For a number of our young people school's not a really good space for them to learn."

As a teenager, he earned good money as a fitter and welder, and believes for some young people, getting a job can be a powerful motivator.

"They feel really proud. Finding that can be the trigger that turns them around and puts them on the right path. Not everybody's going to be a university graduate."

At 18, Dan left New Zealand to play rugby and softball across the Tasman, returning five years later and meeting Josie at the community organisation Jaycees in Auckland when he was 28.

The couple married after two years together and moved to Tauranga, where they ran the YHA hostel in Elizabeth St.

When I was very young, I made a conscious decision about how I wanted to be as a person and a parent, and that was different to what I'd experienced.

A watershed moment came in 1999, when Dan saw a 20/20 programme about Kiwi Can and knew immediately he wanted to bring it to the Bay.

At the time, he and Josie had their hands full running a tools and equipment sales business, and were expecting a second baby, but he kept the idea of Kiwi Can close and, in 2004, formed a charitable trust after getting the support of a lawyer, accountant and school principal.

It took a while to gain funding, but since starting in 2005, Kiwi Can (which merged with the Foundation for Youth Development in 2007), has grown exponentially.

The organisation now clocks up 100,000 attendance hours in the Western Bay, with schools in the Eastern Bay clamouring to join.

Dan is optimistic about youth in New Zealand, saying most are doing fine.

"We're dealing with the ones who are disconnected. We walk alongside them so that they can see there's another way."

He said troubled young people lack confidence and usually come from difficult backgrounds.

"They all have dreams, but they don't make the connection between 'Now, if I had a conviction for this, then I can't actually have my dream'.

"When you have that conversation, the lights can go on, but you have to build a relationship with them before they'll listen."

Dan says long-term relationships and mentoring are key, and young people who have done Project K say he is a master at this.

Ayla Barnes, a mentor for Project K, who did the programme while a student at Otumoetai College, said he is a "one-of-a-kind guy" who keeps in touch with every student who has done the course since it started at her school in 2009.

"It's never the end," Ayla, 19, says. "Dan will contact you. He will find you. There are people in Rotorua, Auckland and Australia. He just goes above and beyond for everybody. I've got nothing to say but glowing things about that bloody Dan. You'll never find someone who's more supportive and encouraging."

We're dealing with the ones who are disconnected. We walk alongside them so that they can see there's another way.

Much to Dan's proud amusement, Ayla - who graduated from high school with excellence in Level 3 NCEA after doing Project K - now has her sights set on his job.

"One day I'll be in his position," she says. "I'm just waiting for him to retire, but I think he's got another 20 years in him."

Foundation for Youth Development programmes are being lauded for their success in schools nationwide, helping reduce bullying and truancy, and bettering young people's academic achievement.

Massey University has praised Kiwi Can as one of the best initiatives introduced in New Zealand schools, while Infometrics research conducted two years ago placed the value to the economy of foundation's programmes as $7.15 for every dollar of investment (compared to a $1.80 return for state highways).

Dan said parents have told him they have trouble keeping sick kids home on Kiwi Can days, and while he has "mixed emotions" about that - "they're going to spread germs" - he is "really proud" of the foundation's achievements.

The Bay of Plenty Times is involved in the Foundation for Youth Development's Drop Your Boss fundraising event in September, with magazines editor Annemarie Quill taking on the challenge.

See this link for details: http://givealittle.co.nz/fundraiser/dropannemariequill